The Concert for Peace dedicated to Aurelia Josz took place on Saturday 22 October 2022 in the Salone delle Feste at the Reggia di Monza with a large participation of political figures representing the territory of the Valle del Lambro Regional Park, Monza, Brianza and the neighbouring province of Como. ( Photographic page and report)
Aurelia Josz: It is with great enthusiasm to share with you my reflections about this extraordinary woman to whom this concert for peace is dedicated.
I must admit that my introduction to Josz happened, like much in my life, by pure chance. While undertaking research for my Ph.D. thesis in Contemporary European History on Italy’s post-WWII Action Party, I became fascinated by strong female figures such as Sara Levi Nathan and Amelia Pincherle Rosselli, both Italian Jews. As I studied their political, cultural and social contributions, my attention was further heightened by my personal interest in the remarkable impact that Italian Jews, and particularly Jewish women, had on the history of the peninsula.
It was during these studies that I discovered Aurelia Josz, who not only impressed me, but with whom I also felt a deep connection. She was a multi-faceted character with many interests: an astute social critic, a Zionist, an agricultural pioneer, an educator, a writer and lover of poetry and an advocate of women's emancipation. I saw in her themes that had always fascinated me, but her love for rural areas and her curiosity about agricultural techniques took me back to my roots, to the farms of Wisconsin where I grew up, to that “America's Dairyland” of my adolescence.
I found that contrast with how the world views Jews, whom they often depict as merchants, bankers or even neurotic intellectuals, leaving out, for example, how today Israel is a world leader in agricultural technology.
And that strong, practical and dynamic woman reminded me of the women in my family: oh yes, my poor father, mine too was a family dominated by women!
Josz wrote that women were endowed with “a rural spirit” and a “sense of the dignity with respect to farm work,” and how could I not recognise this in myself as a girl picking stones in the fields, feeding and milking cows, harvesting hay and supervising with my father the planting of corn, wheat, soybeans, peas, and smiling at the sight of 100 acres of tall, gigantic sunflowers, and the sadness of seeing them harvested.
And how formative first and foremost was that hard rural work on our characters and then later in my sister's banking profession and in my university life.
Josz advocated in the early 1900s something that is taken for granted today, namely that women play a key role in social progress. And she saw agricultural education for women as a first step towards this emancipation. As she wrote, “[It] would prevent so much wasted energy and provide young women with a more stable working environment.” Moreover, girls from such an education would gain practical experience “in the field, in the garden, in the dairy, and in the henhouse, work that would fortify muscles and nerves, girls would prepare themselves for the disengagement of all the offices of housewife.”
Josz was not belittling the role of women within the family but instead sought the elevation of their role within the family realm through education. In short, she was encouraging women to discover how their contribution could improve not only the family, but also the community, nation and world in general. at large.
The German-American Jewish philanthropist Alice Hallgarten Franchetti described Josz as a “small, thin, pale young lady, very simply dressed” and the two women would quickly become close friends, as well as share a spiritual journey based on the importance of culture and women's empowerment. Both were not overtly religious or discussed Jewish values, but their worldview was influenced by Judaism. Concepts such as Tikkun Olam (repairing the world, which invites social action and the pursuit of social justice) and Tzedakah (charitable giving or beneficence, which is considered a moral obligation for Jews, which translated from the Hebrew literally means justice, implying that donating or helping those who are less fortunate is, in essence, “carrying out justice”).
These concepts drove Alice, together with her husband Leopoldo, to devote themselves and their wealth to humanitarian efforts aimed at helping the poor and less educated Italians, who were substantially increasing due to the inequality that was growing especially between the North and the South of the country in the years following national unification and which was aggravated later by the onset of the Industrial Revolution that swept northern Italy between 1897 and 1913, together with the agrarian crisis in the South at the time.
Josz, who left her native Florence for Milan in 1890 to teach history and geography at the Scuola Normale Gaetana Agnesi, gained notoriety by devising innovative teaching methods with the use of theatre to capture the attention of her students. The two school manuals she wrote on this subject were successful and attracted the attention of Hallgarten Franchetti, who became her unwavering supporter along with the Società Umanitaria, a Milanese association of socialist inspiration founded in 1893.
Like the Franchettis, Josz had witnessed firsthand the phenomenon of internal migrants pouring into Milan in search of work in the factories, where they generally worked in exploitative conditions, and for women in particular, this often left no choice but prostitution.
Her remedy to the social and moral degradation taking place was to stop the depopulation of the countryside by establishing the first practical agricultural school for women at Cascina Frutteto in Monza Park for a group of girls from the Stella orphanage in 1902.
Three years later, in 1905, the school was moved to Niguarda and enrolment was extended to the daughters of small landowners with the goal of providing all girls with specialised and innovative vocational training in agriculture. Josz's school immediately attracted the attention of prominent agronomists both in Italy and abroad who offered to teach courses on new agricultural techniques such as the introduction of activities like silkworm breeding and beekeeping.
Josz was rewarded for her pioneering work with the Gold Medal of the Ministry of Education in 1914. In addition, in 1921 she was asked to participate in another important state project: to flank the ordinary courses of the day with the new Magistral Agricultural Course for the specialisation of rural schoolteachers, on which she worked tirelessly until 1931.
She visited women's agricultural schools in France, Belgium, Switzerland and England, and wrote in 1905 essay entitled, Women's Agricultural Schools Abroad: Travel Notes and Impressions, by stating that such schools were “a mother of energy, an example to the fatherland,” and fostered “social progress.”
Just as Josz saw a return to the land as a practical response to the terrible effects of the Industrial Revolution nel bel paese, it is perhaps not surprising that she was interested in another movement that was developing that supported a similar idea: Zionism, which promoted the reconstitution of a Jewish nation in the Land of Israel. Along with many other Italian Jews of the day, she saw Zionism as an instrument of social and moral redemption. Or rather, as the German Jewish philosopher Moses Hess argued in his seminal 1862 work entitled, Rome and Jerusalem: the Jews would become an agricultural people through a process of “redemption of “the soil” that would transform the Jewish community into a true nation as Jews would occupy the productive strata of society instead of being a non-productive intermediate merchant class, which is how Hess perceived European Jewry at the time.
Probably Hess’s theses, and in particular those of Labour or Socialist Zionism, deeply touched Josz who not only engaged in the study and discussion of difficult issues such as education and ways to improve labour productivity, but above all sought to develop concrete solutions. For these reasons she actively joined Bettino Levi's Milanese Zionist Group.
If we want to briefly describe Aurelia Josz and her many activities and ideas, we could say that this singular female figure of Liberal Italy was a pioneering Italian Jew and a true patriot.
In fact, she passionately sought to improve the condition of women through education both for their own well-being and for that of all citizens.
With this goal in mind, Josz adopted a practical and common-sense approach, while remaining firm and unwavering in her convictions; such as when she refused to swear allegiance to the Fascist government in 1931. This choice cost her dearly: she was removed from her position as director of the first practical agricultural school for women that she had founded and the school itself lost its funding. Another women's school that she had also idealised in Sant'Alessio in the province of Rome was entrusted to another woman, a sympathiser of Benito Mussolini's National Fascist Party.
The regime stripped Josz of her life’s work and then with the advent of Nazi-Fascist anti-Semetism and the tragedy of war, her fate followed that of 6 million other European Jews, victims of the Shoah.
Josz in fact refused to expatriate after the installation of Racial Laws of 1938 and in 1944 she was arrested in Alassio, interned at Fossoli and deported to Auschwitz, where she was murdered upon arrival on June 30, 1944. However, in the difficult period before her tragic end, Aurelia Josz devoted herself to two of her great passions: literature and poetry. She wrote two books, one on Matteo Maria Boiardo and the other on the late Roman philosopher Boethius. She also wrote about her illustrious maternal ancestor, the eighteenth-century Jewish poet Solomon Fiorentino. Despite the Racial Laws and the period of economic hardship, humiliation, and extreme suffering for the Jews of the peninsula, Josz managed to maintain her energy and intellectual commitment, cultivating her passions and ideally following one of her most well-known phrases that in many ways can be considered a testament to her life and her feminine ideal: “Of something, that seems worthy, besides bread, one must live.”
Truly a splendid and exciting Italian historical figure, Josz deserves the eternal recognition of a street named after her as Antonetta Carrabs, President of the House of Poetry of Monza and President of Queen Margherita and Valle Lambro Literary Park, has proposed.
Antonetta Carrabs hopes to see the inauguration of this street that leads to the agricultural school Josz founded on 27 January 2023: International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
It would truly be a small but significant recognition of this great Italian Jewish woman!
Amy K. Rosenthal
Credits Photos: La Casa della Poesia di Monza
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